Coping with Separation Anxiety and School Phobia

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Does your child suffer from separation anxiety or school phobia?  Are you nervous about dropping off your child at school or daycare due to this problem?  In my 25+ years as a teacher of young children, I have seen a fair number of children suffer from separation anxiety, and unfortunately their parents suffer right along with them!  There are a number of ways you can help your child overcome separation anxiety or school phobia; hopefully you will find a helpful suggestion below.

Much of today’s post was written by Aileen Pablo of Open Learning Australia  (http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/) , and you will see her comments written in the regular font.  I have added in many of my own tips and suggestions in as well, and have printed them in italics. 

I hope you enjoy this article on separation anxiety as much as I did!  You will also see my own comments in italics under the photos that I found to go with it.  As always, you can find plenty of educational music choices to choose from on our website, www.heidisongs.com.

We all want our kids to love us, but we need to be able to leave them with others once and a while!
 

Aileen:  Many children, especially those between the ages of five and seven, suffer from a touch of separation anxiety, which is often manifested as school phobia (also called “school refusal”). School phobia tends to show itself at the start of a new school term or after a holiday during which the child has become more attached to their parent(s).
In some cases, children will even become anxious about going to school after the weekend or on a daily basis. Symptoms of school phobia and separation anxiety may include stomachaches, nausea, fatigue and frequent potty breaks.

 I can almost feel the anguish of this mother as she comforts her little boy!
 

Aileen:  While this behavior is fairly common and nothing to be overly concerned about, separation anxiety does make life very difficult for both parents and teachers. If the anxiety disorder isn’t addressed early on, it can become more severe and spread to other areas of a child’s life.

Heidi: A healthy attachment and relationship between a child and the parents means that the child is confident that the parent can leave and will return when he or she says that they will.  There is a basic trust and confidence established over time which leads the child to conclude that the parent will ALWAYS return when they say they will, no matter what.  This means that the parent NEVER lies to the child about when they are coming back to get them, or whether or not they are going to help out in class, etc.  The child knows that the parent is always truthful, so he has no reason to doubt that the parent would disappear and never return.
When parents try to comfort children by saying, “I’ll be right back,” and then they do not come back for HOURS, the child learns that the parent cannot be trusted to tell the truth, and the anxiety worsens.  Parents can expect a MUCH harder time separating next time after telling that kind of fib!  So to help alleviate this problem, (or to never have to deal with separation anxiety at all!), start by always being truthful with your child, particularly in regards to when you are leaving and when you are coming back.

Aileen:  Most psychologists agree that regularly allowing a child to stay home, accompanying the child to school (by volunteering in the classroom for example) or even switching to home schooling may send the wrong message to the child.

Heidi: Parents, if you give in to the child at the door and take your child back home, then you are SUNK the next day at drop off time!  And trust me:  letting your child talk you into coming inside the classroom or daycare for “just a little bit” is also a very bad idea.  It sends the wrong message to your child- that you agree that he or she actually might NOT be okay without you!  And the crying will be MUCH louder and more intense when you finally manage to pull the child off of you and make your way out the door.  It may take you 45 minutes to an hour to get back out the door, while your child does everything he or she can to get you to stay!  Meanwhile, the class is totally disrupted… and while teachers do generally understand, they are going to be more annoyed with YOU than with the child!  AND, your child will expect you to do the same thing the next day, and if you do not go inside and stay, he or she will cry even harder.  

From left to right, Kimmie, Katie, and Krissie Butkus.  The twins are the two younger ones in front, Kimmie and Krissie.  It just about broke my heart to leave them, especially as a new mom with my oldest child, Katie.
 

Heidi: A quick good-bye is best! I always tell parents at the beginning of the year meeting that “a long good-bye makes separation anxiety MUCH harder!”  Say good-bye and exit quickly.  If you are nervous about leaving, that’s normal, but the key is to not let it show.  Kids pick up on it and it makes their own separation anxiety worse!  Don’t stand outside the gate and watch/cry, either!  As a mom, I remember feeling terrible guilt when I left my first child at the babysitter’s house and went off to teach other people’s children because we needed the money.  I cried big, alligator tears, and sat sobbing in the car after I put her in the sitter’s arms.  My face was swollen and red when I got to work, and I had to pull myself together to try to teach.  It was AWFUL, and I can still feel the pain!  I felt like I was betraying my daughter’s trust, leaving her with someone who just didn’t know her the way I did, and couldn’t possibly care for her the way I could.  WRONG!  I found that my lovely little girl loved daycare!  She loved the stimulation and company of the other children, the new toys to play with, and the structured day.  I still would have wanted to stay with her myself, but daycare wasn’t ALL bad.  It was hard to admit to myself, but there were good things about it.  Parents, if you are suffering with guilt like I was, focus on these things!  My daughters are now 23, 22, and 22 (twins!) years old, and they all did very well in school, and they all loved they daycare and preschool teachers.

Here they are last year at Kimmie’s wedding!  From left to right:  Katie, Kimmie, and Krissie.
 

Heidi: I would say that most female teachers are also moms, and have also “been there.”  If you are having trouble leaving your child, ask them for advice.  I think that most of them will be compassionate and helpful!  You might even want to ask them to snap a picture of the child as soon as he or she stops crying, and text it to them if possible.  Ask them to make a mental note of how long the child cried and let you know.  In my experience, most children cry no more than a minute or two- probably an average of 60-90 seconds in Kindergarten!  But I would guess that an upset parent cries MUCH longer, assuming that the child is suffering like that for a very long time!  As teachers, I think we need to help the parent transition through this period, if we can.

I really think that separation anxiety is often much harder on the parents than the children!  They seem to suffer much, much more than their children, who recover quite quickly once their parents leave most of the time.  With permission, teachers might try snapping a picture of a child happily playing just minutes after sobbing when his or her mother left.  Text message it or save it to show his mother or father later.  This can help ease the mind of the anguished parent next time, whose suffering is real.
 

Aileen:  Generally, once the child reaches school and their parents have gone, the panic subsides, since their main fear is leaving home or their primary caretaker, rather than being at school itself.

Finding ways to help your child cope with their anxiety rather than avoid the situation is the key to helping them overcome their fears. Many parents and teachers these days are finding that one of the most effective relaxing techniques for children is singing.

If you’ve ever seen The Sound of Music, then you’ll remember how fraulein Maria managed to transform her unruly gang of kids into the most well-behaved group you’ve ever seen, all through the use of music and song.

This tip is from KidsHealth.org.
 

Aileen:  Of course that’s just a movie (although it is based on a true story), and we aren’t suggesting that a chorus of “These are a few of my favorite things” will turn your shy child into a fearless school-goer overnight. But, the power of music and song is undeniable, and singing is known to have a calming effect on children, helping their mind to focus and their body to relax. A clinical research carried out in Pennsylvania found that music therapy can reduce tension, anxiety and stress, and may even help to control chronic pain and boost the immune system. It can also help in cases of emotional trauma, which is often the underlying cause of school phobia and separation anxiety. In addition to releasing endorphins into the body and brain, which causes children to feel happier, singing may also help children to develop better language and listening skills as well as increase their concentration and memory.

This tip is also from KidsHealth.org.  They have a great article on separation anxiety at the link provided.
 

Experts believe that children lack sleep and rhythm in their lives, which causes a kind imbalance, both on the outside and inside. Singing throughout the day, whether happy melodies on their way to school or peaceful lullabies before bed, can help to harmonize their mind and body and help them to be much more balanced emotionally

Heidi: And speaking of sleep, parents should remember that a good night’s sleep usually means a better morning!  Keeping kids up late might seem like fun at the time, but a late night for a young child usually means a very hard following day.  Generally, a reasonable bedtime for a five year old child (or younger) is between 8:00 and 8:30 PM.  If your child is having hard mornings and cannot seem to get out of bed and follow directions in the morning, try backing up bedtime and see what happens!  One mom I know recorded her child’s favorite television programs every night that came on at 7:30 PM and played them for her child at 6:45 PM instead.  That gave the child, who couldn’t tell time anyway, the impression that the evening was over and then the child was willing to take a bath and listen to some stories, and then be ready for lights out at 8:00 PM. 

Aileen:  An emotionally balanced child is less likely to have separation or social anxiety, and in this way singing can help to prevent as well as cure such behavioral problems in young children. One reason that singing has such a profound effect on a child is that voices are the first connection that a baby makes with its parents and immediate family, and studies have shown that singing to an unborn child can have a calming effect.

When she was a preschooler, one of my twins hated it when I left so much that she would throw herself against the screen door like a cat and shriek at the top of her voice every time I tried to sneak out to sing with the choir on Sunday mornings before she got up.  She became an extremely light sleeper and listened carefully to prevent me from leaving her, if she could!  It was PAINFUL for me, and went on for YEARS!  I couldn’t understand why she didn’t give it up!  Now that I know better, I’m sure it was the fact that I was SNEAKING. 
 

Aileen:  Then once a child is born, before they learn to speak, they will primarily listen to the sounds around them, taking them all in and tuning in to their mother’s voice. Voices become a source of comfort for young children, and singing brings back that familiar security of being loved and cared for. Singing is also a great way to release pent up emotions, whether they are angry and frustrated emotions or insecure and fearful emotions. Once a child is able to let out all that stress and worry through singing, they will be able to see the possibilities of the fun and enjoyment that school can bring.

Heidi: Kids really don’t care (or know!) if their parent or teacher can’t carry a tune in a bucket!  They love to sing with the adults that they care about, and the adults that care about them!  I have had more than one student teacher that was completely tone deaf, and you would think that my students would have noticed or objected!  But NO!  They never said a thing- they just sang along, happy as ever.Teachers reading this should be aware that a wonderful way to bond with their new students at the beginning of the school year and to relieve their students’ anxiety is to sing with them, of course.  

Aileen:  As far as what songs you sing with them, it doesn’t really matter. You can make up your own “school songs” or sing well known rhymes and ditties that they are already familiar with. The important thing is to help them relax and feel at ease. Of course, some children may never enjoy the thought of going to school in the morning; they’d much rather stay home and play with their toys or watch television. However, if you are able to bring them into a calmer and more peaceful state of mind, it will be much easier for them to see that school isn’t as scary or unpleasant as they have worked it up to be in their minds.

Heidi: The main thing to remember about school phobia and separation anxiety is that in most cases, it does pass! Most children stop crying upon drop-off after a week or two at the most.  After 25+ years of teaching Kindergarten and First Grade, I have seen children and parents go through many of these transitions, but I have only seen ONE child continue to cry the whole school day (when not distracted) for two whole months.  Finally, we got to the bottom of the problem:  she was very uncomfortable with the after-school daycare which cared for more than one hundred children at once.  It was loud, noisy, confusing, and scary.  When she was finally able to articulate what the REAL problem was, the parents solved it by changing to a family based day care provider.   And guess what?  The crying during school and at drop off STOPPED immediately. 

In split families, some children also cry at drop-off when one parent drops off, and they know that they won’t see him or her for a week or several days, which is a long time to a child.  But I don’t think that is truly separation anxiety- that’s really more grieving on the part of the child, and occasionally a little bit of manipulation as well! But that’s a different topic for another day!

Here are some links to a couple of picture books for children that are good for talking about and coping with separation anxiety:
Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs by Susan Schaefer Bernardo
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

Author Bio
Aileen Pablo is part of the team behind Open Learning Australia,(http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/)one of Australia’s leading providers of Distance Education. When not working, Aileen blogs about education and career.  She is often invited as a speaker in Personality Development Seminars in the Philippines.  If you have a blog and would like free content, you can find her on Google+.

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Heidi Butkus

About Heidi Butkus

Heidi Butkus has been teaching in California public schools since 1985. She has somehow managed to stay in Kindergarten all of those years, with the exception of five years in first grade, and also taught a parent participation preschool for a short while! Combining a strong knowledge of brain research with practical experience, Heidi has created a wealth of fun and engaging teaching techniques that work well with diverse populations. She has presented at conferences nationwide, and is the owner and founder of HeidiSongs.com. Heidi has also created fourteen original CD's and DVD's for teaching beginning reading and math skills, three musical plays designed especially for young performers, and has written some picture books and many other teaching resources. Heidi's multimedia workshops are filled with fun and motivational educational activities that have been classroom tested and revised for effectiveness with all types of learners.
  1. Thank you both so much for this! A friend once said the "music is the hook we place our memories on" [or close to that :)]. I agree with everything you said and many years of teaching young children gives me many experiences with separating issues. Thank you!

  2. Thank you, thank you for this post! I am in a high risk school that has kids with pent up energy. I do singing in my first grade class but your post reminded me I need to do more to alleviate some of those tensions!! This was soooooo timely for me to read! Thanks a million!!

  3. Thank you for this wonderful and unique piece of advice on how to deal with separation anxiety and school phobia. Other people resort to antidepressants to deal with these. However, studies show that antidepressants may cause harmful side effects such as Zoloft-attributed birth defects.

  4. Pingback: How to Help Your Child Get Ready For Kindergarten | Heidi Songs

  5. Hi..i am so pleased to have read this blog. I am from south africa..i have a 3 year old and an almost 2 year old. Im having such a problem with my 3 year old..he seems to have anxiety about people and places its so bad that he actualy throws tantrums about leaving the house! The only places hes comfortable going to is the park and beach..if he knows we are going visiting etc hes just not happy. He will not stay with anyone anymore not even grandparents whom he used to love to go to and he will not let us out of his sight either dad or mom must always be around. If i do go visiting he just sits on my lap the whole time doesnt even play with the other kids there. I tried sending him to school..he cried hysterically and could not be distracted at all. I had to go and fetch him. On the way home i tried explaining to him that i was going to come back for him after school all he said was mom u left me..u did…and i was crying. I would like any advice that you can offer please im so fed up his behaviour as well as anxieties are jus getting worse by the day

    • Hello, Nasreen!
      It sounds like you are having quite a hard time with your precious little one! Unfortunately, this type of problem is really outside my area of expertise. It really sounds to me that you should seek help from a professional, because I haven’t seen this happen often. You are right to be looking for outside help and answers at this point, so I think that you are already doing the right thing. For the moment, be patient with him and try not to make it worse by communicating your own anxieties about his behavior. I have always thought that children pick up on our own feelings quite quickly. If we are anxious about anything, then children also become upset or anxious (although they might wind up anxious about something entirely different.) Try to calm your child down and give him or her a transitional object, such as a doll, blanket, or teddy bear to help ease the transition.
      I am going to have one of my assistants, Kristen Watkins, also answer your question, because she is actually a licensed child therapist and may have some better advice for you!
      Heidi

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